Party primary elections were introduced in the nineteenth century. They were touted as a more democratic means of nominating candidates for state office than the traditional party convention. The final choice of a candidate for office is made in the general election, which is generally contested by candidates from opposing parties. But in the “Solid South” of 1876–1960, where Democrats were the only viable party, the primary was the only opportunity for meaningful participation by voters. In essence, the candidate who won the Democratic primary was also the de facto winner of the general election since there was almost never a viable candidate from another party to oppose him.
Democratic primaries spread across South Carolina in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, beginning with Pickens County in 1876. In 1896 the state became the first in which all elected officials were nominated in primaries. However, followers of Ben Tillman imposed a “whites only” rule in the primary in an effort to eliminate African Americans from the state’s political life. A few blacks who had supported Wade Hampton for governor in 1876 were permitted to vote in the primaries. But with the effective disenfranchisement of the state’s black majority by the constitution of 1895, politics were closed to African Americans for the next fifty years.
Beginning in the 1920s, black plaintiffs from across the South challenged the white primary in the courts. Success came in 1944 in the Texas case of Smith v. Allwright, in which the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that the primary was an integral part of the election process and that, at least in Texas, the Democratic Party was an arm of the state in its exclusion of voters based on race. Thus, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution required an end to the white primary.
South Carolina’s small contingent of civil rights activists took heart from the ruling but were under no illusions about its immediate impact in their state. Indeed, while Democratic officials in most of the South yielded reluctantly to the inevitable, Governor Olin Johnston and the General Assembly defiantly refused to concede defeat. With state control of voting at stake and fearing the return of the “black rule” of Reconstruction, they maneuvered to circumvent the ruling, or at least to delay its implementation as long as possible. In a one-week special session in April 1944, the General Assembly repealed 147 laws relating to the primaries in hopes that the courts would allow the Democratic Party, now as a private club, to continue to exclude African Americans.
The efforts were to no avail because blacks in the state, including George Elmore of Columbia, courageously pressed their right to vote in the primaries. In 1947 the federal judge J. Waties Waring of Charleston, applying the Smith ruling to Elmore’s suit against a Richland County Democratic official, ruled in Elmore v. Rice that African Americans must be permitted to enroll in the party. One last attempt at evasion, a “loyalty oath” that required would-be voters to swear that they supported white supremacy, was shot down by Waring in Brown v. Baskin in 1948. As a result, some fifty thousand blacks voted in the 1948 Democratic primary. While the final overthrow of the old political order would come only with the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, the fall of the white primary was a major step in undermining the status quo.
Burton, Orville Vernon. “The Black Squint of the Law: Racism in South Carolina.” In The Meaning of South Carolina History: Essays in Honor of George C. Rogers, Jr., edited by David R. Chesnutt and Clyde N. Wilson. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.
Hine, Darlene Clark. Black Victory: The Rise and Fall of the White Primary in Texas. Millwood, N.Y.: KTO, 1979.
Lawson, Steven F. Black Ballots: Voting Rights in the South, 1944–1969. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976.